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Am I Responsible For My Elderly Parents?

Elderly mother with her exhausted daughter.

As our parents grow older, many adult children feel the pull of responsibilities not only towards their own spouse and children but now to their aging parents as well.

But what exactly are our legal and moral responsibilities to our parents?

I recognize that’s a loaded question, but it’s one you must explore as you begin the journey to caring for your aging parents.

Am I Legally Responsible For My Parents?

Legally, some states (29 of them) have filial responsibility laws requiring adult children to financially care for aging parents.

Morally, many adult children feel obligated to care for their parents as they age, but family dynamics and psychological issues may impede that moral compass.

This group of individuals is caught in the “sandwich generation” – generally described as middle-aged adults who are caring for their own children as well as their parents or others in their old age.

Whether your parent is living alone, receiving home care, or maybe is in an assisted living community or a nursing home, many adult children still feel the pull of obligations.

Being responsible for the care of elderly parents is complicated. There are many factors involved, including emotional ones. I very much like Dr. Abramson’s advice on this issue.

…treat caregiving as a business. Assign a ‘CEO’ to organize the family team and let each member choose the tasks he or she will manage. Don’t hesitate to outsource, either: The National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers is an invaluable resource for shifting some of the caregiving burden from family to trained professionals.” – Alexis Abramson, Ph.D lifestyle gerontologist and author of The Caregiver’s Survival Handbook: Caring For Your Aging Parents Without Losing Yourself

Caregiver burnout can come on much quicker than you think. It’s extremely important to care for oneself FIRST, as this will help to create and/or maintain a healthy relationship between caregiver and senior.

At least, as healthy as it can be for that particular parent and child.

Quality of life issues are important not only for the aging senior but for their caregivers as well.

Filial Responsibility Laws: An In-Depth Analysis

Filial laws “impose a duty, usually upon adult children, for the support of their impoverished parents or other relatives. In some cases the duty is extended to other relatives.

Should you have the financial means but refuse to pay for your parents’ care, you could incur civil or criminal penalties

In certain states, failure to pay for your parent’s care can lead to enforced fund retrieval through wage garnishment or directly from your bank account. 

The criminal penalty for this non-compliance varies by state, with some imposing jail sentences from a few months up to a year.

Countries such as Bangladesh, China, India, Germany, France, Taiwan and Singapore have their own versions of a filial responsibility laws as well.

If you live in any of these areas, then you are “legally” responsible for your aging parents as far as financial matters go.

I strongly recommend that you speak with an elder law attorney in your area to get the proper, updated information concerning your responsibilities in caring for your parents.

Can family members be held liable for allowing an elderly parent to live alone?

Should We Look After Our Elderly Parents?

Moral responsibility for caring for an aging parent cannot be governed by law – it’s an individual accounting of doing what’s right and just.

So, that definition of course would be different for each person.

For many adult children, it may be hard to imagine that any child would not feel obligated to care for their aging parent, but the truth is, not all parent and child relationships are good ones.

If the parent was an abuser, it would be certainly understandable that their children would want to avoid caring for them as they grew older.

But, generally speaking, many of us will feel a sense of obligation to our parents and therefore feel that it’s morally our responsibility to help and/or look after our parents as they age – even if they may not want to.

Moral obligations would also run to siblings and family members as well.

When my mother became ill – she was still extremely independent and refused help, even though she needed it.

My older sister was having a difficult time dealing with our mother’s decline.

I felt morally obligated to help my sister care for our mother. It was the right thing to do – even though I really didn’t want to leave my home and my life.

But at the end of the day – what kind of relationship would I have with my sister if I didn’t step in to help?

Read more in our article Can I Refuse to Care For My Elderly Parent?

What Are The Costs Of Caring For An Aging Parent?

Many individuals underestimate the costs involved in growing older.

I have seen many elderly people lose everything they worked their entire lives for simply because they did not save enough for themselves.

This can create a very difficult situation for everyone.

The burden of a poor financial situation then usually falls on their family and the dollar amounts vary depending on many factors.

If you have indigent parents or expect that they will be, here are some issues to consider that may impact your cost of caring for them.

  • Home modifications – If your parent(s) will be aging in place, modifications will most likely have to be made for them to live safely.
  • Home maintenance – Any homeowner knows that the work on a home never ends. If your parents do not have the funds to keep their house maintained, it will fall on you.
  • Home utilities – Again, if your parents are unable to pay their electric bill, water bill, etc. to keep them safe and cool in the summer and warm in the winter, you will have to pay those bills.
  • Food and accessories – I know seniors who are purposely eating less because they cannot afford the food they used to buy. They have given up cable TV, internet service, a new winter coat, etc. So, their children are footing the bill for those things and more.
  • Medication – My late husband often ran into the problem of his patients not being able to afford life-saving medication. Family members may have to pitch in for this.
  • In-home care – Many elders do not want to think that they may, at some point, require in-home care services, but it happens more often than not. These services can be expensive, and most insurance will only pay for a limited amount.
  • Healthcare costs – Even with Medicare or Medicaid and supplemental insurance, there may still be additional medical bills that are not covered.

If you suspect your parents may not have saved enough (or currently are), I recommend you speak with a social worker or geriatric care manager to help you identify what programs in your area you can apply for help with.

Can You Be Forced To Take Care Of An Elderly Parent?

Beyond the filial laws, no one can “force” you to care for any elderly parent. The choice is literally yours to make.

It’s very easy for many adult children to allow caregiving of their elderly parents to become a dominant issue in their lives.

But I want you to know, that from my personal experience, that is a very bad way to manage the care of your parents.

No one person is responsible for any other persons’ happiness. Everyone lives with the consequences of their decisions.

Of course, we can (and often should) provide help. But not to the point where it impedes your own well-being.

When Aging Parents Expect Too Much

In my own experiences in dealing with many elderly patients and their families as an occupational therapist, I witnessed many older adults bullying their children and making unrealistic demands of them quite often.

These were very difficult families to work with because communication between them was often very fragmented.

I will say that from my personal experience, the outcome of my elderly patients was often very poor in these situations.

It’s understandable. The family wanted no part in assisting the elderly adult, who in turn resented them for it (not realizing that perhaps they were contributing to that sentiment.)

We often recommended a family meeting with these families and the psychologist on our medical team to help them resolve their issues.

My Personal Experience With Family Caregivers – Caregiving Should Be A Group Effort

There is no doubt in my mind from what I’ve seen as an occupational therapist and personally that being a caregiver is an extremely difficult task and should be undertaken by a group vs. just one individual.

Seek social support from family, friends, and your community if you find yourself in the position of being the primary caregiver to your aging parent.

Believe me, support groups can be a lifesaver.

Thirty-nine percent of adults in the U.S. are caring for a loved one with significant health issues, so consider yourself part of a large — and growing — tribe of caregivers.


Being a caregiver to an aging parent may in fact be the most difficult time of your life. It’s hard work and not to be taken lightly.

So gather your family and schedule a family meeting to discuss what can each person contribute to help with the caregiving duties.

This support system will be your lifeline throughout this process.

Read our article, Does Social Security Pay For Caregivers?

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